Obama's Reply to a Trans Woman Proves His LGBT Advocacy Stops at Gay Marriage
As I watched Jennicet GutiÃ©rrez open her mouth to interrupt President Obama’s Pride Month reception address Wednesday night – because, she said, as an undocumented trans woman she couldn’t celebrate while LGBT detainees are being abused in US detention centers – I thought, That could have been me.
I could see myself as a transgender US immigrant in a roomful of LGBT people, wanting to celebrate the president’s actions to advance the cause of gay marriage, trans healthcare and trans people serving in the military, but being unable to shut my mouth because of the deplorable conditions that undocumented LGBT immigrants, especially trans women, face.
Trans women in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention are routinely housed with men and are either at enormous risk of sexual assault, sometimes by ICE guards themselves, or are placed in solitary confinement for months for their own “safety” – all after already enduring violence in their own countries that led them to seek asylum. So when GutiÃ©rrez shouted, “President Obama, I am a trans woman. I’m tired of the abuse. I’m tired of the violence,” she was advocating for an issue that cuts to the heart of what it means for a person to be treated with basic human dignity, regardless of immigration status.
President Obama’s response was bracing as it was heartless, especially being the child of one non-American himself. “Listen, you’re in my house,” he said. And later: “I am just fine with a few hecklers, but not when I’m up in the house. You know what I mean? You know, my attitude is if you’re eating the hors d’oeuvres – you know what I’m saying?”
Obama’s argument seems to be that if you’re invited to a party, it’s only polite not to criticize the host; I try to follow this rule myself. But when the host is in charge of a system that leads to members of a community he’s supposed to be celebrating being routinely abused and assaulted, and he has so far taken little action to address it, then breaking this rule is justified.
More than this, Obama’s emphasis on defining the fine food and drink at the event as his property only serves to highlight the lack of dignity LGBT detainees endure simply through their accident of birth – that American society can shower resources on its citizens while leaving those who are attempting to enter the country in desperation without the most basic physical and psychological safety. And LGBT detainees merely represent the most extreme ways in which some people are treated unequally in the US.
Trans people, and especially trans women of color, have to endure all sorts of indignities in US institutions and broader society. Trans immigrants like me are especially vulnerable, as we endure the constant threat not only of being housed in male prisons – even as many of us are arrested simply for walking on the street – but also of travel restrictions when we cannot provide identification consistent with our gender, must endure harassment by government officials and live with the consistent threat of deportation (which applies even to legal residents).
The disparity in treatment of ICE detainees also highlights the enormous gap between the white, gay segment of the LGBT population and their trans people of color counterparts. The crowd at Obama’s Pride Reception, consisting mostly of white men in suits, amplified the President’s message by booing GutiÃ©rrez and shouting Obama’s name, enacting in real time the long, historical marginalization of trans women of color. It’s been happening since at least the Stonewall Riots that ushered the modern LGBT movement, where organizers kicked out trans activist Sylvia Rivera, a founding member. For so many gay people today, LGBT advocacy stops at gay marriage, even as members of our community are routinely subject to harassment and violence, both in detention and outside.
The circumstances may be different, but the desperation that drove GutiÃ©rrez to speak is the same, and it is the same for anyone who sees other human beings treated inhumanely by a president and a government that has the ability and the power to do otherwise. In this sense, GutiÃ©rrez was not acting for herself, for trans women or for the LGBT community, but for all of us. We all, at any moment, can find ourselves in a situation where we are robbed of our basic human dignity – even if, occasionally, we’re invited to partake of powerful people’s hors d’oeuvres.